For anyone who pays even a modicum of attention to the world around them in America, the fact that Super Bowl ads are “a thing” is not a surprise. In fact, they’ve been a thing for so long that now even jokes about it1 are cliché. They’re expensive and a great deal of attention is paid to them. Their rise to prominence in pop culture has made them even more valuable and even more watched. Hell, there are people who don’t even watch the game who spend the next day finding the ads online and watching them, if for no other reason, so that they can understand chatter around the proverbial water cooler. This makes the stakes for such an ad unfathomably high. GroupOn has a pair of ads, one of which ran during the Super Bowl, that have created quite a ruckus. One was about Tibet, the other about Brazilian rain forests. They seem to have drawn the ire of a number of busy-body, do-gooder types.
So what’s the problem? Well, as it turns out, people were offended. Very offended2. The spots touched of a media firestorm of outrage, anger, and hand-wringing. There is nothing inherently offensive about the ad. Tibet’s situation is handled as seriously and clearly as is possible in the 12 seconds (out of 30) spent on it before transitioning to the GroupOn-related part of the ad. So why are people upset? Because people enjoy feeling offended. They enjoy it more, in fact, than helping the Tibetan people. GroupOn spent more than a third of the time it paid for putting the issue facing the Tibetan people front-and-center for more than 100 million Super Bowl viewers. The vast majority of them, I’d wager, had gained most of their previously existing awareness of the issues in Tibet from cars like the one pictured above. In the commercial, right before turning his attention to the service being advertised, Actor Timothy Hutton tells us “[Tibet's] very culture is in jeopardy.” But the sudden shift raises an immediate question for those unfamiliar with the plight: Why is their culture in jeopardy? If even 0.1% of Super Bowl viewers attempted to answer that question for themselves (either by hopping onto Wikipedia or asking the nerdiest guy at their Super Bowl party), the ad would probably have done more good in 12 seconds than years and years of bumper stickers plastered on the back of hippies’ cars. If any of the viewers noticed the juxtaposition and thought “What an insulated little bubble we must live in to have trendy restaurants serving the food of an oppressed people,” you could practically visualize this happening to the person’s brain. The people raising a stink, speaking in stern tones, and wagging their fingers at GroupOn are the worst kind of advocate: the kind that believes that their cause is far too serious and important for anything but somber and depressed conversation to be made about it. They thrive on the ability to demonstrate that they take their cause far more seriously than anyone else, and they would gladly trade some of the best publicity the Tibet cause has ever received just to maintain their ability to look down their noses at people less serious than they are. Looking at this analytically, you might get the impression that they’re actually just objecting to the thought that their pet cause might become popular, robbing them of their feeling of moral and intellectual superiority over the average idiot who currently doesn’t even know what Tibet is, let alone that it needs freeing. You might also posit that most of the anger is coming from people whose lone contribution to the Tibetan cause is the passive display of a bumper sticker. People enjoy being vicariously offended because it reinforces their own perception that they’re just better than the people who aren’t offended. More enlightened. More aware. In reality, they’re just more annoying. It was a good P.R. move to apologize, but I’d really have enjoyed a giant “fuck you” with a call to action: “If you’re so offended, please feel free to donate to [some Tibet-focused charity] in the name of our rival LivingSocial.” Asking the Cult of the Offended to put their money where their mouth was would have been illuminating. I watch for the commercials, etc…Vicariously offended, of course, not personally.